How ‘Ruth’ led the toxic Tories back from the wilderness

Ruth Davidson rides 007, the buffalo, in Auchtertool, Fife. Picture: Wullie Marr/Deadline News
Ruth Davidson rides 007, the buffalo, in Auchtertool, Fife. Picture: Wullie Marr/Deadline News
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When, just a few days ago, Ruth Davidson confidently declared the Conservatives would come second in the Scottish Parliamentary elections, there was widespread astonishment at her gall. It was true the polls were pointing towards a resurgence. But this was Scotland, where blue is not the colour and many people would rather admit to having scabies than put their cross beside the name of a Tory candidate.

Up here, the Conservatives have been languishing in a state of near-oblivion since the 1997 general election wipeout; four years ago, after the SNP’s landslide, leadership candidate Murdo Fraser suggested disbanding the party and starting again from scratch. Did Davidson really believe photographs of her scoring a penalty and straddling a buffalo would be enough to detoxify the Tories and allow them to steal the role of “official” opposition from Labour?

Well, yes, she did. And she was right. Now those of us who could almost taste the schadenfreude are choking on it. As the election-night fog cleared, the Conservatives emerged as the only party to have made unalloyed gains. The SNP may have gained a historic third term, but they lost their majority, Labour haemorrhaged support across the country, the Lib Dems took North East Fife and Edinburgh Western, but lost two list MSPs, leaving them back at square one. The Tories, however, won 31 seats – seven more than Labour and their best ever Holyrood result – with Davidson herself taking the party from fourth to first place in Edinburgh Central. Though their share of the vote is lower than it was in the 1992 general election, it is still an astonishing feat. Davidson held her nerve and it paid off; now she is being tipped as a future leader of the national party.

“There’s a Georges Danton quote: ‘audacity, audacity, always audacity,’ and certainly there was a degree of guts behind the Tory campaign,” says SNP activist and commentator Andrew Tickell. “My overwhelming feeling now is one of disorientation. We are entering a rather interesting, unmapped territory where all the traditional landmarks that we have previously navigated by have fallen.”

Previous attempts to rehabilitate the Tories in Scotland have come to nothing. David McLetchie, who led the Scottish party from 1999 to 2005, undertook a root and branch review, but couldn’t transform its fortunes. His successor, Annabel Goldie, was well-liked, but was unable to rid it of the legacy of the Thatcher years. So how has Davidson succeeded where other Scottish Conservative leaders failed? Is her success down to charisma alone? Or did her decision to pitch the Tories as the most effective opposition strike a chord with those worried about the prospect of a “one-party state”?

Anyone who has watched Davidson’s campaign unfold knows how big a part her personality has played in detoxifying the Tories in Scotland. A gay, female kick-boxer from a working class family, she might seem an unlikely leader, but her detachment from the privileged boys’ club of the Westminster party is her trump card, and she knows it. From the moment she took up her position she played up her blue collar roots and her state education. Yet her appeal is not confined to her social credentials. She is forthright and funny, with a quick wit she showcased when she took part in the Gary: Tank Commander, Election Special and referred to Homes Under The Hammer as a gateway drug to Jeremy Kyle. “She doesn’t take herself too seriously and that’s attractive to many people,” says Tickell. “Also, if you find the SNP really irritating, and lots of people do, then she seems to have the will to give them a drubbing. That kind of toughness is quite compelling.”

This Holyrood election tended towards the presidential, with photo-ops a go-go and the personalities of the six leaders – Nicola (Sturgeon), Ruth, Kezia (Dugdale), Willie (Rennie), Patrick (Harvie) and David (Coburn) – to the fore. Nowhere was that more true than in the Conservative campaign, where “Brand Ruth” ruled supreme. Davidson’s face was splashed over billboards and leaflets, from which all reference to the Conservatives had been excised. Canvassers were said to be introducing themselves as members of “Team Ruth”.

Despite Davidson’s popularity, some commentators (including me) doubted her personal appeal would translate into a wider Tory revival. After all, however careful she was to differentiate herself from her Westminster colleagues, she still belonged to a party which had made savage cuts to disability benefits and which last month blocked plans to give sanctuary to 3,000 child refugees.

What we missed, however, was the effectiveness of her broader strategy, which was to single-mindedly target right-of-centre unionists looking for an effective opposition to the nationalists.

There is a famous scene in Schindler’s List where Oskar Schindler tells his wife his previous businesses have failed because something was missing: not luck, but war. For McLetchie and Goldie perhaps the missing ingredient was an independence referendum.

Davidson took over as leader in 2011, but it wasn’t until the indyref campaign – when she was one of the strongest voices speaking up for the Union – that she began to establish herself as a force in Scottish political life. Now, in a country that continues to be divided along a Yes/No faultline, she is capitalising on a contingent that bitterly resents the SNP and its perceived hegemony.

Goldie accepts the problems for the Conservatives in Scotland post-1997 were more intractable than she had anticipated.

“The late David McLetchie and I were really trying to nurse a fairly seriously convalescent patient,” she says. “What Ruth has managed to do is to take changing circumstances and turn that into a recovery.

“I think the referendum cleared a lot of the debris out of Scottish politics and made people realise that for Scotland there are basically two constitutional options: you can either go for independence or you can opt to be in the United Kingdom with a more powerful parliament.

“With that clarity of the constitutional position Ruth was able to say with great credibility: ‘Right, we were asked the question, we gave the answer, respect the answer. Let’s get on with life. We have a really powerful parliament now, let’s use those powers sensibly and let’s keep in touch with voters.’

“She very astutely identified how changing circumstances would give her a strong political message to deliver to voters, and then with her own dynamism, her own charisma, she simply led the campaign with aplomb.”

Andy Maciver, director of PR agency Message Matters and a former head of communications for the Scottish Conservatives, says Davidson’s strategy was to try to attract a single section of voters – those who were pro-UK and not left-wing

“Unfortunately for Labour they were all Blairites,” says Maciver. “Her focus was subtle and had been going on for a long time. Six or seven months ago, you might remember, she announced she would vote for the EU come what may: that wasn’t an accident. She knew these Blairite voters would be pro-EU.”

As Davidson was courting New Labour voters, fellow unionist and Scottish Labour leader Dugdale appeared to be driving them away. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK party gave her little option but to shift to the left. But she also made the decision to go after supporters who had defected to the SNP as opposed to those who remained staunch unionists.

“It was partly luck, and partly Labour’s [choices], but the Tory strategy was perfectly executed,” says Maciver.

“It just works. You can see that if you look at almost any of the seats particularly the urban ones, you see Labour down 10 per cent, the Tories up 10 per cent. There is direct transfer of Labour voters to Tory.”

This shift is obvious in Eastwood, an aspirant area peppered with new housing estates on the outskirts of Glasgow. In 1997, Jim Murphy overturned an 11,000-plus majority to wrest the Westminster constituency (now called East Renfrewshire) from the Conservatives. On Thursday, however, many of those New Labour voters drifted back to the Tory fold, allowing Davidson’s deputy, Jackson Carlaw, to oust long-standing Labour MSP Ken Macintosh from the Scottish Parliamentary equivalent.

Another strand of Davidson’s strategy was to stoke up fears of indyref 2, although, arguably, the chances of another vote before 2021 were always negligible. Having done so, she presented herself as the only one able and willing to stand firm against it. “No-one has talked more about indyref during this campaign than Davidson,” says Maciver. “By focusing on a threat that may not have existed, she pushed Sturgeon to be more bullish on the issue and it became self-fulfilling. Davidson highlighted Sturgeon’s pressure point and made people worry.”

Dugdale, on the other hand, appeared to waver, suggesting she herself might back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU and Scotland voted to remain. “In a way, the Tories’ campaign was massively cynical,” says Tickell. “Davidson talked continually about the need to move on from the referendum, while simultaneously indicting the Labour Party for being sell-outs and unreliable defenders of the Union. That seems pretty shabby.”

Davidson’s move from Glasgow to Edinburgh – ostensibly so she could use her personal profile to boost the party’s representation in the Lothians – seems shrewd in hindsight, although it’s unlikely even she could have predicted she would take Edinburgh Central, given the Tories had come fourth every election there since 1999 and she had been parachuted in from outside. When I visited the constituency a few weeks ago, most of the voters I spoke to said they liked her, but would never vote Tory; nevertheless, she beat the SNP candidate Alison Dickie by 610 votes, while three more Conservatives won seats on the Lothians list.

Glasgow University law professor Adam Tomkins is one of those who has benefited from the Tory resurgence; he was top of the Conservatives’ list for Glasgow and won a seat. He eschews the notion that the Tories’ campaign with its myriad photo calls was superficial, saying there were interesting discussions going on at hustings across the country. “The thing that worked was that we had a clear, consistent and popular message from Ruth down on tax and the economy – we didn’t want Scotland to be the highest taxed part of the UK – and a similar consistent and popular message on the constitution.”

The immediate impact of the Tories becoming the “official” opposition will be to further polarise the Parliament on both a Yes/No and a left/right basis.

“This suits the Tories, but it is also exactly what the SNP wanted,” says Maciver. “The SNP has already done a good job of promoting the idea that unionism equals Toryism equals right-wing and nationalism equals Scottishness equals left-wing. If they can cement those concepts in people’s minds it’s a quick way to turn the remaining left-wing unionist vote nationalist.”

The challenge for the Tories is to come up with a strategy to counter that narrative and compelling set of policies. “They need to think about it pretty quickly,” says Maciver. “They have already differentiated themselves on education, but on many of the big issues of the day – tax, healthcare, justice – there’s very little between the parties.”

While acknowledging the effectiveness of the Tory campaign, Tickell is no great fan of Davidson’s brand of Conservatism, dismissing it as “old wine in new bottles”. He doubts her party will ever be in government in Scotland and is sceptical about whether her current success can be expanded on.

“It’s not a very profound win,” he says. “It’s not a win that will leave her with a clear policy agenda once she is in opposition. I’m not sure how much capacity there will be in this new Tory group or how much she will enjoy the inevitable greater scrutiny she will receive.”

Whether the Tory revival turns out to a blip or an enduring feature of the new political landscape depends on how Davidson handles the challenges that lie ahead. “It’s the big league now for Ruth,” says Maciver. “No longer is it a question of 15 MSPs, causing trouble and not worrying about what goes on. It is a much more serious situation, a job that carries a lot more responsibility, and she is going to have to step up.”

It seems Davidson’s buffalo-riding days are over; at least for now.